The Great Departure is precisely the sort of ambitious, entertaining research that should be done by a leading historian already at the top of her field.
The Great Departure is precisely the sort of ambitious, entertaining research that should be done by a leading historian already at the top of her field. Involving archival research in six countries and five languages, Tara Zahra’s third monograph is a wide-ranging historical epic which masterfully changes scale from the individual level of looking at one person’s letters to a world-historical analysis of how emigration from Central and Eastern Europe played a vital role in constructing the global system of today.
Zahra’s thesis in The Great Departure is that the movement of people, particularly Eastern Europeans, has been seminal in the construction of modernity. Specifically, the exodus of poor, rural and/or minority populations from what is today the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and Croatia in the period after 1860 has helped to define such key concepts as freedom, labor, citizenship and human rights.
She is careful to interrogate standard narratives about the “unwashed” masses abandoning the confinement of Slavic village life for the opportunity provided by American liberty. Sometimes, so-called freedom in the West took the form of wage slavery and a life of toil. Many immigrants were miserable and even tried to return, penniless, to their homelands. Zahra is also clever enough to emphasize that many migrants were not voluntary, as she details ethnic cleansing and expulsions both notorious—the Nazi scheme to send Jews to Madagascar—and relatively unknown—Communist Czech efforts to remove ethnic Germans after World War II. Migration helped to define freedom in the modern world, but it was often itself not the paragon of the concept in action.
The Great Departure is more a study of emigration than it is of immigration. In other words, its focus remains on Central and Eastern Europe rather than the Americas or Palestine. Zahra describes the way governments ranging from the imperial Habsburg regime up through the post-Communist, EU-member administrations of ‘90s Poland have responded to the outflows of people from their territory. The common theme for the way countries react to emigration is victim blaming and scapegoating, rather than a deep, self-reflective analysis. In this vein, Habsburg officials were quick to prosecute “people smugglers” who facilitated migrants’ transportation westward, but never considered examining the sociopolitical structures of Austro-Hungarian society. This blames emigration on individuals, both the weak-minded migrant who was duped into leaving and the avaricious trafficker who did the duping. But Zahra argues that instead the blame should have been placed on the structures of society that made people impoverished or oppressed; emigration should have led to questions by those in charge to remedy their broken policies.
The authorities in Eastern Europe always over-estimated the pull factors (the appeal of America, the persuasive power of traffickers, etc.) without considering the push factors (the destitution of their territory). Per Zahra, this dubious appraisal of the motivations for migration was heightened by the receiving countries. The U.S., in particular, ardently characterized itself as a land of liberty and good tidings – in other words, the ultimate pulling force for immigrants. In this way, freedom came to be defined as a lack of restrictions on personal movement rather than the ability to live in a society that met basic needs, namely a freedom to migrate, not a freedom from want. This migration then constructed the world in which we live, profoundly shaping the nature of governance and values of citizens.
Where The Great Departure really shines is in highlighting the voices of the migrants themselves: The way that people negotiated the migration process, their reactions to the often-appalling material conditions of life in the U.S.: their mixed feelings about leaving their homelands: their intentions of venturing back to Europe after saving some money; and their frank calculations of the push and pull factors that drove them abroad all come through in Zahra’s writing. She quotes extensively from dozens of migrant letters. Her argument may be grandiose in scale, but her prose is ever linked to the individual and their experiences. From the letters of a Bohemian teenager daring to cross the Atlantic, Zahra crafts a thesis about the very foundations of the way we conceive of social justice and the good life in the 21st century.